Category Archives: Historical

Reflections on Annual Council: Fundamental Belief 6

A number of changes in Fundamental number 6 (Creation) have been recommended by the Annual Council. This was in response to the action at the General Conference in 2010 to revise FB6 in light of the Affirmation of Creation document produces at the Science and Creation Conference of 2004 (Glacier View, Colorado). Among the changes is the adjective “recent” in relation to the creation of “the heavens and the earth.” The chronologies of Genesis 5 and 11 were added to the list of Scriptures because they offer the only basis for calculation of ancient biblical dates.

The new statement itself seems to me to support so-called young earth creationism (everything, including the rocks, was created in recent times), which is popular with some protestants outside the SDA Church. This is different from the “young life” position (earth may be billions of years old but life was a fairly recent creation) I generally heard in my years at the Seminary (Andrews University). The chair explained that the statement was intended to leave both options open. In his view, this was done by referencing Exodus 20 in the statement instead of Genesis 1. Exodus 20 does not refer to “in the beginning” but has to do with the creation of this earth only.

This stimulated a vigorous discussion in the Biblical Research Institute Committee (BRICOM). Many members are clearly uncomfortable with the “young earth” position. They note that the Institute for Creation Research (evangelical operation) goes so far as to state a “young universe” position (the entire universe, including galaxies, was created a few thousand years ago). The SDA statement must be worded in such a way that people don’t think it advocates young-earth or young-universe positions.

The chair of the FB committee (Angel Rodriguez) responded that the statement begins with “God created the cosmos,”and no reference to six days or recent history is made. Then the “six days” are brought in and Exodus 20 is quoted. The statement, to Rodriguez, is deliberately ambiguous on the creation of the universe and the physical planet earth. Room is left for theologians to discuss the details.

But some committee members were not satisfied. They noted that Exodus 20 is merely quoting Genesis 1 and that most readers of FB6 are likely to read “heavens” in Exodus 20 as the entire cosmos. Unless the statement is more nuanced, literalistic readers are like to attach the Seminary and other educational institutions simply for teaching what most Adventist creationists have believed for years.

This discussion was most interesting. Even in a group that is firmly committed to SDA beliefs and traditional readings of Scripture and science, there was considerable disagreement on just how FB6 ought to be worded. It was then reported that when the 27 Fundamentals were written up in 1980, not one of the original fundamentals was voted unanimously by the committee. The fundamentals should be understood as a statement of what most Adventists believe, rather than what all believe or should believe.

That raised the question of the purpose of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. In legal terms, are they prescriptive (indicating what everyone “should” believe) or descriptive (describing what most Adventists believe). The Preamble of the Fundamentals suggests they are descriptive. They are intended as a helpful resource for explaining what Adventists believe and inviting others to consider and embrace those beliefs. But more and more voices are treating the Fundamentals as prescriptive, spelling out exactly what people must believe. It seems to me that this is a dangerous turn, one that the early pioneers of the Church would have vigorously opposed.

The fact that the Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists can be changed suggests that they are not a creed. But it is a strange thing to have changeable fundamentals and then enforce them. That suggests that early pioneers like James White and J. N. Andrews could be disfellowshipped today for not believing everything that is now present in the fundamentals. Are we moving toward a fixed creed that all must subscribe to? Or is it still true, as our pioneers said, that the Bible is our only creed? Do we submit our understanding to the Bible, or to our understanding of the Bible. There is an important difference. If the “biblical view” is not what is contained in the Bible, but is now what we think the Bible says, we have made a significant shift. In a very subtle way tradition begins to supplant Scripture. I hope we don’t go there.

Reflections on Annual Council: Fundamental Beliefs 1 and 2

It was a historic Annual Council of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Fundamental Beliefs were reviewed for the first time since they were put together in 1980. That alone would have made the Council historic. But the review was completely overshadowed by the issue of ordination, and how the church should relate to women in leadership. I was not there, but I just spent a couple of days with the Biblical Research Institute Committee of the General Conference at Andrews University and had a chance to debrief a number of major players in these events. I will share some of what I have come to understand, respecting confidentiality and the fact that I know a lot less than I would like.

First let me reflect on the Fundamental Beliefs (hereafter “FB”) discussion. The “28″ were reviewed over a period of years, taking into account consultations with many groups of leaders around the world and also suggestions that were mailed in to headquarters from leaders and lay people all around the world. Appeals for change focused particularly on two doctrines, the Trinity and Creation. Changes were then proposed in 2013 and circulated further around the world church. The revised set of FBs was then discussed last week and further revisions were made. The current state of the document, including all changes and comments by the committee chair and editor, can be found at http://www.adventistreview.org/assets/public/news/2014-10/FUNDAMENTAL_BELIEFS_STATEMENT-last_version.pdf. As you will see from this document, everything was done in the open, including suggested changes and comments on the process. Please refer to that as I share some brief comments aided by the discussion at BRICOM. Two global changes I won’t comment on further are putting Scripture references in canonical order and the use of inclusive language wherever that would not be painfully awkward.

FB1 is on The Holy Scriptures. The main intent of the wording changes there is to highlight the centrality of the Bible in SDA doctrinal discussions. There has been a tendency through the years to settle discussion by means of quotations from Ellen G. White (a respected founder of the Church who is viewed by most SDAs as having the gift of prophecy) rather than careful Bible study. The new wording of this fundamental highlights the centrality of the Bible in any discussion of doctrine in the Adventist Church. I consider this a very important and helpful re-emphasis.

FB2 is on The Trinity. There is a rising movement in some circles of the Church (particularly conservative circles) to return to a less trinitarian formulation of Adventist belief in the godhead. Since the Church had been fairly settled on the issue for around a hundred years, this caused church leadership considerable concern. The point was well taken that the title of FB2 (“Trinity”) was a word not found in the Bible. So it was argued that the wording should be more biblical and less philosophical (perhaps simply “God”). But the argument was then made that if the Church removed the word “Trinity” from FB2 the anti-trinitarians would declare victory, which would not have been the intent of those framing the language. So in the end little change was made, only to emphasis that “God is love.” What that biblical point (John 3:16; 1John 4:8) may seem obvious, it was missing in the earlier version.

To be continued. . .

The Latest on Women’s Ordination and the Annual Council

I am sitting in the Biblical Research Committee of the General Conference. Just heard a report on the women’s ordination debate and I am now much more satisfied with what took place at the Annual Council of SDAs. It seemed to me at first that the church had simply “punted,” sending the 2015 session the same question they had already settled in 1995. It sounded to me like “deja vu all over again.” I couldn’t see why sensible people would agree to that. But that was because my attention had been focused on the question going to the floor of the General Conference as to whether segments of the church can differ in how they relate to ordination. But that was not all that was voted.

The actual voted document is four pages long. It was affirmed to me today by the chair of TOSC (Theology of Ordination Study Committee) that the voted question should not be read in isolation, but in the context of the whole four pages that were voted, and this is significant. Page four, paragraph one, essentially makes the point I have made in my solution to the problem. The Bible does not address the issue with the kind of clarity needed for the church to settle the matter for everyone in every place on the basis of the Bible alone. Please read the whole document: http://www.adventistreview.org/assets/public/news/2014-10/statement.pdf.

The bottom line of that paragraph is the point I made earlier this morning: The Bible does not either affirm or deny ordination to women. What makes this even more significant is that this statement comes as the unanimous affirmation of the world church’s officers. In other words, the entire leadership of the church wants us to understand that the settled outcome of two years of study by more than 200 people is that neither side has iced its case on the basis of the Bible. That being the case, the way is open to diversity on the matter, wherever mission to diverse situations calls for it.

Doubt the church leaders  were paying attention to my earlier blogs (well, I know that some did), but it feels good to know that the two-year process has been taken seriously. I was wrong to suggest this morning that the church “punted” the issue to next year, I believe they have actually listened carefully to the years of study around the world and felt that the Holy Spirit led them to this unanimous consensus in spite of many differences among them in detail. I look forward to further evidences of the Spirit’s work in the year to come.

Ellen White and the Book of Revelation III

The final blog in this short series summarizes random points of interpretation that can be found scattered throughout Ellen White’s writings, particularly in the book The Great Controversy. The concepts that follow are covered in the order of the texts in Revelation to which they apply, beginning with chapter 1 and ending with chapter 22. White understood the “Lord’s Day,” when the spirit came upon John (Rev 1:9-10), to be the Sabbath day (AA 581:3; YI April 5, 1900). She associates the heavenly scene of Revelation 4-5 with the ascension of Christ to heaven after His resurrection (DA 834-835). The lion and the lamb (Rev 5:5-6) are both symbols of Christ, representing the union of omnipotent power with self-sacrificing love (AA 589:2). The heavenly signs of the sixth seal (Rev 6:12-14) are usually associated with events leading up to the Advent movement in the mid-19th Century (GC 333-334).

While her language falls short of an endorsement, White approvingly reports the predictions of Josiah Litch related to the fifth and sixth trumpets (GC 334-335). The scene of Revelation 10 describes a point in history when the time periods of Daniel have reached their conclusion and the final proclamation of the gospel has begun (MS 59, 1900, quoted in 7BC 971). The two witnesses of Revelation 11 represent the Old and the New Testaments, and the descriptions of the chapter portray how the Bible was treated in the course of the French Revolution (GC 265-288).

Ellen White describes the war in heaven of Rev 12:7-12 in two different, but complementary ways. On the one hand, the scene describes a threat to the government of heaven that occurred even before the creation of the world. Satan, and all the angels who followed him, were physically cast out of heaven at that time (RH January 28, 1909; Letter 114, 1903, quoted in 7 BC 973). On the other hand, the casting out of the dragon reflects the impact of the cross on the affections of the universe (MS 50, 1900, quoted in 7 BC 974). At the cross, Satan lost any spiritual credibility he may have retained in heavenly places (3SP 194-195).

Ellen White understood the sea beast of Rev 13:1-10 to represent the papacy of the Middle Ages (GC 49-60), which is to have an end-time role in opposition to the true people of God (GC 445-450). While many of her statements against the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church are painfully strong by today’s standards (GC 563-581), other statements caution against personalizing one’s opposition to the papacy (Ev 576:1). She also recognizes that time and place need to be considered when expressing that opposition (TM 112:2; Ev 573-577).

Ellen White understood the land beast of Rev 13:11-14 as the United States of America in its end-time collaboration with the Roman heirarchy (GC 439-445). The Mark of the Beast is received when one rejects God’s final call to true Sabbath keeping and instead submits to the end-time enforcement of Sunday worship (GC 445-450). The three angels of Rev 14:6-12 represent believers in God’s end-time message who spread the last gospel message throughout the world (GC 311-312).

Ellen White did not consider the Battle of Armageddon (Rev 16:16) a military affair in the Middle East or elsewhere, to her Armageddon will be a last-day spiritual conflict between the people of God and the forces of evil (note several comments in 7BC 982-983). During that last conflict fundamental spiritual principles will be clarified and people will be brought to decision concerning them. It will be a time when faith is tested rather than physical power or skill (MS 1a, 1890, quoted in 7BC 983).

Regarding Revelation 20, Ellen White was a pre-millenialist. She believed that the millennium will be a thousand-year period after the Second Coming of Jesus. During that period the earth will be desolate of human beings, although Satan and his angels are confined there. The people of God are taken up to heaven at the second coming to spend the thousand years with God (GC 653-661). At the close of the millennium, the wicked of all time are resurrected and God’s people return to earth with the New Jerusalem to witness the final destruction of sin, sinners and Satan (GC662-673). The earth is then destroyed by fire and God creates a new heaven and a new earth in which God’s faithful people will dwell forever in joy and perfect harmony (GC 673-678). In White’s opinion, however, the best definition of heaven is not riches and glory, it is the presence of Christ (undated MS 58, quoted in 7BC 989).

Ellen White and the Book of Revelation II

Ellen White articulated a high spiritual purpose for the book of Revelation. 1) The book was designed to keep the human agent out of sight and to exalt God and His law (TM 112:2). When readers view the glory of God portrayed there human pride is laid in the dust. 2) The close connection between heaven and earth in the visions was designed to teach that the connection between God and His people is “close and decided” (TM 114:5; AA 586:1). 3) Rightly understood, Revelation enables presenters to “uplift Jesus as the center of all hope” (TM 118:1). Revelation was not designed to satisfy curiosity about the future but to fix human eyes on Jesus and encourage a closer walk with God.

Ellen White’s view of Revelation’s authorship and time of writing was in harmony with the traditions of the Early Church Fathers as well as the conservative consensus around the turn of the Twentieth Century. She taught that the author of Revelation was the last survivor of the disciples, presumably John the son of Zebedee (AA 569:1). The Apocalypse was written in the time of Emperor Domitian, who summoned John to Rome to be tried for his faith, had him cast into a cauldron of boiling oil, and then banished him to the Isle of Patmos, a place of banishment for criminals (AA 569:4-570:4).

Where her statements are clear, Ellen White seems to consistently apply the “historicist” method to the text of Revelation (EW 230:2). “Some of the scenes depicted in this prophecy are in the past, some are now taking place; some bring to view the close of the great conflict between the powers of darkness and the Prince of heaven, and some reveal the triumphs and joys of the redeemed in the earth made new” (AA 584:1). Two examples of her historicist approach: 1) she sees the letter to the church of Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7) as a description of the entire Christian church in the apostolic age (First Century AD– AA 578:1-2, cf. AA 585:3), and 2) the message to Laodicea is particularly applicable to the Adventist people at the end of time (MS 33, 1894, quoted in 7 BC 961).

At the same time, however, she also acknowledges that the book of Revelation was given “for the guidance and comfort of the church throughout the Christian dispensation” (AA 583:1), something more akin to the “idealist” approach. The overcomer promises of all the seven letters, for example (including Rev 2:7; 3:5 and 3:21), belong to all the faithful ones striving against evil throughout the centuries of darkness and superstition (AA 588:1-2). The message to Ephesus offers an example of how to reprove sin for ministers today (MS 136, 1902, quoted in 7BC 956). The message to Laodicea applies to all who profess to keep the law of God but are not doers of it (RH Oct 17, 1899; DA 489-490).

Whichever way one studies Revelation, however, Ellen White sees the book of Revelation fulfilling a special role in the final era of earth’s history (TM 113:0; 115:2; 116:2; GC 341-342). The truths of the book are “addressed to those living in these last days” (TM 113:3; 8T 301). Many parts of Revelation (she cites in this context Rev 15:2-3; 21:2-22; 22:1-5, 14; and 14:2-5) are directly concerned with the ultimate triumph of God’s remnant church (AA 590-592). She believed that her generation was nearing the time when those prophecies would be fulfilled (TM 113:3). So while historicism was her primary approach to Revelation, she understood that the entire book would have special significance for the very last days (TM 116:5; 9T 267). Even the chains of history portrayed there would help God’s people correctly estimate the value of things and discern “the true aim of life” (PK 548:1-2).

Ellen White and the Book of Revelation

For Seventh-day Adventists the study of the book of Revelation rarely occurs without reference to the writings of Ellen G. White, a highly-respected founder of the Adventist Church and a major female author of the 19th Century. While most of her comments on Revelation seem based more on the scholarship of the time rather than her own personal study or direct revelation from God, the spiritual power of her writings continues to impact people today as much as it ever did. In a short series of blogs, I would like to address her writings on Revelation (which are fewer than most people who know of her realize). The content of these blogs is based largely on my entry “Book of Revelation” in the new Ellen G. White Encyclopedia. References to her books and manuscripts are in the standard abbreviated format as suggested by the Ellen G. White Estate (http://www.whiteestate.org/).
 
Ellen White’s view of the book of Revelation is most clearly discerned in the two major places where she directly addresses her understanding of the context and purpose of the book. The first and most comprehensive treatment was published in the Review and Herald, Feb. 18, 1890 and republished in Testimonies to Ministers, 112-119. The second treatment consists of two chapters in Acts of the Apostles (568-592).

Ellen White’s approach to Revelation was informed by a basic conviction. She believed that an end-time explosion in the understanding of Daniel and Revelation was the key factor behind the rise of the Advent movement. She felt, in other words, that in her time God had lifted a veil off from these books, enabling them to be fully understood (TM 113:3). The book of Revelation, therefore, was addressed to those living in the last days and the time of fulfillment was near (TM 113:3; 115:2; 116:2; 6T 61-62).

Although the Adventist pioneers had invested much in the study of Revelation, Ellen White was convinced that the book had not yet been fully understood (TM 113:2). Those wishing a deeper understanding would need to approach the book “humbly and meekly” (TM 114:4). The deeper understanding of Revelation that they gained would be a great boon to character development (TM 114:3). There would be a “great revival” (TM 113:2) marked by “an entirely different religious experience” (TM 114:3). So the primary goal of Revelation, in her thinking, was not knowledge, but character.

In terms of method, this deeper study would need to take two, somewhat contrasting forms. On the one hand, Ellen White advocated studying Revelation in the context of Daniel, as a follow-up to the visions given there (TM 114:6; EW 231:2). The two books were to be treated as close companions (TM 115:3,4; AA 585:1). On the other hand, she urged people to study Revelation in the context of all the other prophecies in the Bible (TM 112:1). She even went so far as to suggest that in the book of Revelation “all the books of the Bible meet and end” (AA 585:1). So a whole-Bible approach with special attention to Daniel was the basic method she thought should be applied to Revelation. But while Daniel and Revelation are complimentary, the two books are not the same. Daniel contains much that was sealed up (Dan 12:4), but Revelation was not sealed, its mysteries have always been “open to the study of all” (AA 584:1; RH August 31, 1897).